“We are The Riot Squad and we're coming to town...”
As you may know, David Bowie fronted the band for a brief period in 1967 and while on-board he recorded demos and gigged with them in and around the London area.
The history of The Riot Squad has been largely undocumented in Bowie biographies, but they were an important chapter in his story for a couple of reasons.
Firstly, they were among the very first groups to wear make-up onstage (as evidenced by our exclusive picture), and they also have the very hip claim on being the first band to play a Velvet Underground cover version, even before the band's debut was released.
David had insisted on including ‘I’m Waiting For The Man’ in the band's live set along with the ‘Venus In Furs’ inspired ‘Little Toy Soldier’, even recording studio versions of both tracks with the band, neither of which have ever had an official release.
Here's an excerpt from Ian Shirley's piece picking up where Bowie joined:
In early March 1967, the band divided, with Gladstone, Crisp and Clifford going off to form soul band Pepper. Evans retained The Riot Squad name, along with Butch and Del. He was quick to recruit Rod Davies (guitar), Croak Prebble (bass) and a new lead singer.
Evans recalls: “I saw David Bowie with The Buzz at the Marquee and thought that he was fantastic. I approached him and he agreed to join.” Though Bowie had a growing reputation in London, like the Riot Squad he lacked a hit record.
Butch was underwhelmed when Evans informed him he’d offered the future Ziggy Stardust the job: “I thought, ‘Oh no, I don’t like him.’ We had supported Bowie months earlier. His presentation was superb, but his material was terrible.” Saying that, when Bowie turned up for their first rehearsal in a Tottenham pub, Butch admits he “fell in love with him because he had such charisma and he looked so cool when he walked in”.
The band had a few days to work up a set-list before their next gig and Bowie took charge in helping to knit together a running order. He even brought in a track from an unreleased LP by a US band called The Velvet Underground, I’m Waiting For The Man.
Butch recalls that, although The Riot Squad set had pop and soul roots, they were open to diverse material such as the Bowie-penned Little Toy Soldier. Bowie also pushed the band to be more theatrical. “He told me, ‘Why don’t you put paint on your face, Butch?’ We became more outrageous. Bob started throwing rags into the audience.
“Bob Evans loved it when Bowie came along,” recalls Butch, “because he was out front with the sax and flute and with tracks like The Vicar’s Daughter we got a bit more like The Bonzo Dog Band. When Bowie came in he had great ideas like Toy Soldier, where he’d whip Bob on stage. They got on like a house on fire because they were both great front men.”
Bowie led the band for around 20 gigs, between March and May 1967, before handing in his notice to go solo again.
“We were serious with David,” recalls Evans. “His material commanded respect, and while I wasn’t exactly hankering to loon about, I’m Waiting For The Man and Toy Soldier pointed that way. I can’t remember when we first chucked rags into the audience, that was post-David, but I enjoyed doing that stuff – all of which would develop at a pace soon after.”
It's fascinating reading and the story continues in the current edition of Record Collector.
The magazine has kindly given us two exclusive and previously unpublished images of David in make-up from a Riot Squad photo session. Check out David Bowie (Official) on Facebook for an alternative shot to the one here.
Record Collector is also releasing a limited edition Riot Squad album on 180gm vinyl. Though Bowie isn't on it, the record does include a version of his song ‘Little Toy Soldier’ recorded after he had left the band in 1968.
The album is limited to 750 copies and it will be available from the Record Collector shop at the end of the month.